Monday, July 4, 2011

An American Sports Tour

Posted By on Mon, Jul 4, 2011 at 6:44 AM

For this most patriotic of weeks, we're going to take a tour of the most distinctively American sports venues in the country. Pay no attention to time or distance; I'll do the driving.

The tour starts at Daytona International Speedway on the east coast of the Sunshine State. Sorry Indy, but this is the Great American Race, after all. Open-wheel racing is dynamic, particularly the Formula 1 variety. But when it comes to burned rubber and paint-tradin', nothing compares to NASCAR, particularly the golden era of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, when Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt took as much pride in the way they drove as their place at the finish. You decide if NASCAR is better or worse minus the southern culture that gripped the sport for two generations.

We'll change out of our Budweiser t-shirts before stopping at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the Masters. I might even put on a tie if it will buy us a walk up the 18th fairway. The tournament created by Bobby Jones and conquered by Arnie, Jack, and Tiger. The color green in its most beautiful setting.

We'll have to spend the night in Louisville, Kentucky, after visiting Churchill Downs. Because I'm not stopping with one mint julep. While the erstwhile "sport of kings" struggles to compete in today's media jungle, the Kentucky Derby somehow retains the prestige it first established in the 19th century. There are few automatic tear-jerkers in sports, but hearing "My Old Kentucky Home" as the thoroughbreds make their way to the gate on the first Saturday in May is one.

We'll next make a stop in the midwest, to stroll the hardwood at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. The Jayhawk program was founded by Dr. James Naismith, the man who famously nailed those peach baskets to the walls of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, inventing the game we love as basketball. Among the players Naismith coached at Kansas was Phog Allen, who later coached Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, men who made basketball religion in North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively. That could well be the Mount Rushmore of college hoops (though a fifth likeness would have to be carved for John Wooden). If basketball was born in Springfield, it grew up in Lawrence.

Our lone west-coast tour will be of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Long before there was a BCS, at a time when reaching a bowl game virtually demanded an undefeated season, the Rose Bowl was the destination of choice for every college football team in the country. (The first game in the current stadium was played on January 1, 1923. In 1947, the game began hosting the Pac 10 and Big 10 champions each year.) Still "The Granddaddy of Them All," the Rose Bowl somehow remains above the hype of modern college football.

We'll turn back east, but stick to the gridiron as we stop at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Home to the Green Bay Packers since 1957, this NFL stadium has no roof, natural grass, and more "frozen tundra" references than any venue south of Canada should claim. But it was the home of Lombardi. And Nitschke. And Starr. And, yes, Favre. The Packers are owned by the people of Green Bay, for crying out loud. The NFL should conduct every meeting of the ongoing labor dispute at Lambeau. The ghosts would be screaming.

The House that Ruth Built has been destroyed. (The cost to build the new Yankee Stadium would make even the Babe blush.) And I can't bring myself to tour a ballpark known primarily for a century of losing. So we'll head all the way to Cooperstown, New York, for some time well spent at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Whether it's a hat worn by Sandy Koufax or a bat swung by Ted Williams -- maybe a glove donned by Willie Mays? -- this shrine houses one goose-bump-inducing gallery after another. You'll have to guide yourself as I stare at Stan Musial's plaque.

Finally, we're heading to central Vermont and the Dog River. Snaking alongside two-lane highways, dirt roads, and an occasional covered bridge, the Dog is an amateur fisherman's delight (but also appreciated by those handy with a fly). The Green Mountain State in July is so lovely Mother Nature slammed the region with the harshest of winters just to keep it from becoming North Florida. The most American of sporting endeavors is a day with the sound of a river as our soundtrack, all buttons, screens, and engines in our rearview. Whether or not the trout are biting, this stop will mean a tour fulfilled.

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